The expo is the overseas equivalent of the Consumer Electronics Show, bringing hundreds of manufacturers to Berlin, Germany to show off everything from 3D TVs to kitchen gadgets. If you've endured CES before, you'll feel right at home among the major tech companies (Samsung, Pioneer, Motorola, etc.) and the scads of Chinese retailers peddling their cut-priced wares to quality-averse electro-bodegas.
But unlike CES, which has enjoyed an explosion of automaker participation and major announcements in the last few years, only two automakers have a presence at this year's IFA: Ford and BMW.
The former announced plans to bring SYNC to the 2012 Focus in Europe, with support for over 19 languages, plus Ford's emergency assistance program. The 2012 Fiesta gains MyKey functionality, allowing parents to limit top speeds and audio volume, while not allowing little Danny to deactivate any of the standard safety systems.
BMW? They've got an inconspicuous, closet-sized booth we passed three times before we saw a minuscule ConnectedDrive banner plastered to the wall.
So what gives? Why the massive discrepancy between two virtually identical shows? In short: Europe doesn't seem to care about in-car tech as much as the U.S. and most automakers are happy to oblige... for now.
We reached out to a handful of automakers to understand why – in comparison to CES – there was incredibly limited automaker attendance at IFA. The answers ranged from "we'll be there next year" to "we don't see the benefit, yet."
Mercedes-Benz, which recently announced it's a title sponsor of CES and that head-honcho Dieter Zetsche will keynote next year's show, is quick to reaffirm its commitment to the consumer electronics space. A spokesperson cited the automaker's launch of its first telematics system in 1999, its keynote at Comdex and a variety of other telematics and CE-related events it's participated in over the years, but stated, "we can't be everywhere." That said, to our eyes, updates or no, COMAND is looking achingly long-in-the-tooth compared to what Audi and BMW have brought (or are bringing) to market, and it's safe to assume that a major rework is about to be unleashed.
General Motors was another automaker notable in its absence, particularly considering its plans to introduce 18 new infotainment functionalities in the next 18 months. We would've assumed that with all this in-car goodness coming down the pike, Chevrolet – or even Opel – would try to be as many places as possible, including a stand at IFA, but we assumed wrong. According to our source at GM, "Most of those launches start with the United States and then will expand around the globe."
Ford is taking a similar tack with the gradual roll-out of SYNC in Europe, but it's leaps and bounds ahead of the competition, both in the mid-level space and in traditional luxury sector.
"Technology is now our key differentiator in the marketplace," according to Ford spokesman Alan Hall. "It is how the Ford brand is defining itself and standing apart from other automakers. Technology shows have quickly become just as important to build our brand image as auto shows... and consumer technologies are fast becoming integral, critical and desirable to people's lives and the car needs to be part of that trend."
SYNC initially launched in the U.S. in 2007 and Ford's goal was to build the technology and the brand up in the States before pushing it worldwide. That caught the attention of CES organizers, who invited Ford to keynote the event in 2009 (Ford had a presence at the show in 2008) and then do the same both in 2010 and 2011. And it's been paying dividends ever since.
Ford is quickly becoming the go-to automaker for developers to create applications and new SYNC-based functionality with its infotainment system. Major partnerships and announcements are coming from Ford and its partner developers in the next few weeks and months, and as the Blue Oval stakes a virtual claim in the infotainment space, the invitations and partnerships continue to roll in. "We were first invited and then adopted into the technology community," says Hall, "We did not just show up to use CES as another show to simply reach consumers; it is a strategic priority to be part of the community and we need to be at these [consumer electronics] shows, not only to conduct traditional marketing and brand building, but keep pace with the technology community to help drive innovation and continuously improve the customer experience." Something the automaker is working on after troubled launch of MyFord Touch.
But for now, Ford stands virtually alone in Europe. But why?
The infotainment realm is finally beginning to keep pace with the world of consumer electronics, but only a few automakers are taking the reins across the Atlantic. The reasons are unclear, but the general apathy towards in-car infotainment systems in Europe speaks to a host of conditions.
While Europe has been at the forefront of the mobile phone boom for well over a decade, the U.S. has historically been more comfortable with new technologies and early adoption when it comes to in-car systems. This assertion was backed up by a few attendees we spoke with at the show who applauded Ford's importation of SYNC's music and safety systems, but failed to understand the usability of more social and app-based features. One attendee asked a question many Americans have been wondering for years: "Why would I want to update my Facebook while in the car?"
But this isn't just down to "Europeans are drivers and Americans are multitaskers." Quite the contrary. In-car mobile phone use is up across the planet, and while drivers in France, Germany and the UK don't use internet-enabled phones behind the wheel as much as their Stateside counterparts (figures are flimsy, but a recent study by State Farm showed that 19 percent of U.S. drivers use the internet while behind the wheel), the fact is people are using their phones while driving, and if an outright ban on such technologies is increasingly unlikely, reducing that temptation or integrating commonly used apps into vehicles for safer input and usability has to become a priority. And not to mention the language issue.
Safety issues aside, the general sense we took away from IFA was a general lack of awareness when it comes to mobile integration and a broader disinterest in anything that didn't address the core in-car infotainment functionality; namely phone calls and music. The former is getting better with each successive generation and the latter is being addressed with deeper integration of music services like Pandora, Mog and eventually, Spotify. That's what many consumers are beginning to demand, but as of now, only a two automakers – Ford and BMW – are heeding the call both here and abroad.